Build a Writing Retreat from the Ground Up

We hear about writing retreats all the time. Many of us have even been on some. But have you ever wanted to put together your own? It’s more work than tagging along on someone else’s, yes, but when you set up the parameters you leverage yourself for the best possible retreat to fit your needs. Today I’ll walk through some considerations, steps, and tips for building your very own writing retreat from the ground floor.

Budget

Money so often gets the final word, and with creating a retreat it should also get the first. What can you afford? That answer will shape every other facet of your retreat, from size to location to duration. Here are a few example ranges to help you dream:

Free – Dirt Cheap: We’re talking the retreat equivalent of a “staycation.” You might be camping in your own backyard, staying in a friend’s guest room, or borrowing a relative’s RV. Food is brought from home and time taken off any day job will be minimal, which might point to a weekend or long weekend. You’re probably crashing with a few good friends either on a floor, in a sleeping bag, or on someone’s futon.

Cheap – Economical: No fancy hotels or extravagant cabins here – only the cheapest little cottages or rustic cabins you can find on HomeAway. (There are lots of good options for $100/night or less, if you look ahead of time.) You’ll probably need to be close enough to home to drive instead of fly, and can maybe swing a combo of food from home and eating out. A long weekend is typical, or maybe part of a vacation week. You might be sharing rooms or a loft space.

Moderate – Nice: Now we’re getting into the good stuff. A flight to somewhere farther from home might be in order if you can book one cheap, and home for the week might be a nice hotel, a big shared cabin, or even a beach house. Food is more likely eating out and/or shopping once on location, and this one probably comes complete with nice views and separate sleeping areas.

Fancy Schmancy: Lucky, lucky you! If you’ve saved up enough for a truly luxurious retreat, it might become as much vacation in tone as it is work trip. The nicest retreats often travel abroad to beautiful locales or cool, scenic landmarks. Lodging is probably top notch, as is food (no cooking during work time!) and sleeping quarters (no sharing rooms here). Duration can vary from a long weekend to two or three weeks. The thickness of your wallet is your only limit!

Size

While a huge group might be fun, the less moving parts there are the easier things usually run.

How many people are we talking here? You’ll need to run some calculations while looking at potential venues to decide how large of a group you want. Going solo is usually more expensive unless you’re camping. To some degree, the more people you have the cheaper the housing will likely shake down into – until each step up in size. (Four people splitting a four-person cabin will probably be cheaper than five people splitting an eight-person cabin, for example.)

But it’s not just cost to consider when it comes to the number. It’s logistics. While a huge group might be tons of fun, my experience tells me that the less moving parts there are the easier things usually run. The less writers, the easier it is to agree on things like food, scheduling, etc. 

Guest List

Not just how many, but who? Don’t invite twenty people hoping five can come, because you just might end up with twenty. But don’t assume everyone you invite can make it, either. So make yourself a list of who you’d like to go with and work your way down that list in small sections so you end up with the right amount. And be flexible; it’s better to downsize your retreat than to bring along a party-pooper or, worse, people who only want to have fun and distract the rest of you from working.

Also keep in mind the trustworthiness and dependability of the people you invite. Are you paying up front and having people pay you back? If so, make very sure you’re inviting people who will definitely do so. Think hard about asking people who might back out and leave you with a heavier portion of the bill. And talk about money up-front, too. Be clear about sharing cost, timing, and expectations. Will they need to pay in advance, at check-in, or after you all get home and divvy up the expenses?

Location

Is this a genre/themed retreat? It can be cool to match the location to the writers, if you all have something in common. (A horror retreat at a haunted hotel, for example, or a literary fiction retreat at a famous author’s historic home.) More realistically for most of us, we need somewhere near enough to drive to but still far enough away to feel like we’ve really “left.” I’m a huge fan of looking at lake/beach/mountain cabins within a two-hour radius, for example, because they’re scenic enough to make things feel retreat-y without breaking my bank.

Another locale consideration is proximity to civilization. While a little solitude is ideal so there aren’t any distractions, too much solitude can be inconvenient for your average bear. Will you need to go buy food, for example? If so, any farther than half an hour from a town will probably end up wasting your valuable retreat time.

Timing

Timing, too, is a game of balance. The less-popular the time of year, the cheaper you can likely get a rental. But the less-popular times are less popular because that’s when it’s hardest for most people to get off work. Got a whole crew of full-time writers? Awesome! Consider going during your area’s off season. It’s actually really cool to be locked into an air-conditioned cabin during the hottest part of summer or to stay at the beach in the winter. You’re there to write, not to swim, after all. Otherwise, you might have to go on spring break, Christmas break, summer vacation, etc. so everyone can make it. In that case, planning ahead is your best tool.

Duration

How long to stay depends on cost/budget, how much you hope to accomplish, and who you’re going with. If you’re going with strangers, acquaintances, or people who sometimes get on your nerves, I would recommend keeping it to a long weekend or less. If you’re going with your BFFs, a full week might be fine, if you can afford it.

But also keep in mind productivity. Retreats can force a wonderful type of concentrated efficiency, but how long can you keep that up? Three days going 100% might be more beneficial to you than three going 100% and then three more going 20%. No one likes to end on a burned out, frustrated note, so try to balance how much you want to do with how much you realistically can do – and for how long.

Setting the Tone

This is probably the actual most important part of building a retreat: you and everyone else going need to be on the same page. Is this a work-heavy, quiet, serious, pound-it-out retreat where productivity is king? Is this a part vacation/part inspiration/part easy working trip? Is this a group work trip, where everyone will be sharing and critiquing and brainstorming? Or are people expected to bring their own to-do lists and work on their own? Some combination of all? Any and all of these can be wonderful retreats – but everyone has to know going in what to expect. If you want to, set group goals and private goals and share them, so you’re all on the same page from day one.

Scheduling

Speaking of tone and goals, why not build a schedule? Some people are inclined to fully-scheduled, every-hour-accounted-for time. Others want full freedom to do what they want when they want to. I personally like something in between: loose schedules that set expectations and time blocks but still allow for flexibility and individualism. So rather than 7:30-8:00 eat breakfast, 8:00-9:00 draft, etc., I’d set mornings as goal-setting and think-talking (sorting through problems and stuck spots), afternoons for drafting broken down into sprints with breaks, evenings for breaks, and late night for more sprints. If anyone in the group needs to vary from that, they can, so long as they don’t disrupt the others. In other words, I prefer setting aside silent work times. If someone needs a break during those times, they can read or go for a walk, etc. (rather than turn on the TV or start chatting).

Meal Plans

Even if you’re only gone for a weekend, you’ll have to plan for food. Can everyone afford to eat out/order in for most meals? That’s fast and easy, but more costly. Do you want to assign meals to different people to bring and make? That can be nice if the group is small and not particular, but if the group is big or if people have lots of dietary needs (gluten-free, vegan, picky, low-sodium…) that can get complicated quickly. Not to mention that, frankly, some people are terrible cooks.

Another option is to go to the store on location and shop together, also planning to cook together. I’ve never been able to bear taking so much of my retreat time to do non-writing things, but if you’re flying in it might be your only option. (If that’s the case, be sure to make a meal plan and shopping list ahead of time, or you might end up spending hours on the world’s most frustrating shopping trip.) If you’re driving in, my personal preference is for everyone to bring their own food. People can plan according to budget, desire to put in effort, and any dietary needs they have. Plus, that way you know exactly what you’re going to get. Just be sure to check that your rental’s equipped with kitchen supplies and fridge space before you pack!

Packing

Speaking of which, what to pack? Aside from food, the priority is, of course, writing gear! You’ll probably want your laptop and accoutrements (charger, mouse, keyboard, zip drive to back things up, whatever you use), a notebook and pens, any reference or pre-planning materials for your WIP, any craft books or brainstorming aids, a power strip and extension cord just in case you’re short, possibly a folding table and chair to work at if the space is cramped, headphones in case your retreat partners are noisy or distracting, and a butt cushion. Trust me, folding chairs suck.

Before you leave make sure all your files are available even if you don’t have internet access; no matter what the listing says, sometimes Wi-Fi doesn't come through.

You might also want a portable easel, colorful markers and/or highlighters, or whatever other tools you use for the relevant stages of your process. And be very sure before you leave to make sure that all your needed files are available even if you don’t have internet access; no matter what the listing says, sometimes Wi-Fi doesn't come through.

Otherwise, you’ll want to pack as you would for any other trip. Bedding, clothing, toiletries as needed. Comfortable clothes are a must for long days and car rides. A heated blanket is a lifesaver if you’re going somewhere cold with crummy heaters, as is a plug-in fan if you’re on a summer retreat. Hiking/walking shoes and sunglasses, bug spray, etc. can provide nice breaks between working spells – maybe even a swimsuit if you’re going somewhere with water. Try to think of one or two only-fun things you can do each day to give your tired mind a refresher, and pack for that. If nothing else, going for walks is always wonderful.

Final Considerations

Really, a retreat that you build is exactly what you make it. That’s the beauty of creating your own instead of tagging along on someone else’s. Sure, there will be mistakes and learning curves – that’s inevitable in something with so many moving parts – but if you’re building your own, you get to set the tone, choose the details, and generally guide things along. My best advice is this: go with like-minded people who want what you want and who will have good attitudes. Keep a good attitude yourself, even if the stress bunnies bite, you don’t reach your goals, or the retreat doesn’t meet expectations. If nothing else, you'll have a good story to tell later – and more knowledge about how to make your next retreat that much better.

Writers, have you ever gone on a retreat? How about set up your own? What tips did you learn from your experiences?

Annie Neugebauer

Column by Annie Neugebauer

Annie Neugebauer likes to make things as challenging as possible for herself by writing horror, poetry, literary, and speculative fiction—often blended together in ways ye olde publishing gods have strictly forbidden. She has work appearing in over fifty venues, including Black Static, Apex Magazine, and Fireside. She’s the webmaster for the Poetry Society of Texas, an active member of the Horror Writers Association, and in addition to LitReactor, a columnist for Writer Unboxed. She’s represented by Alec Shane of Writers House. She needs to make new friends because her current ones are tired of hearing about House of Leaves. You can visit her at www.AnnieNeugebauer.com for discussions, poems, organizational tools for writers, and more.

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